The seeds of ‘Distillations’ were sown in March 2020, when I went to Port Macquarie as an invited artist of the Glasshouse residency program. Midway through my stay, the town grew very quiet and by the end, a national lockdown was instated. Nonetheless, I spent mornings exploring the beautiful coastline and afternoons working hard, producing work that held a delicate spark of possibility. However, not long after returning home I fell into a deep depression, which brought my work to a grinding halt.
Cycles of depression have long been a feature in my emotional landscape but this one was particularly debilitating. After some weeks, a glimpse of light arrived via the helping hand of a virtual stranger. She suggested I make a drawing or ‘expression’ each day for 30 days. She also instructed me to go for a daily walk and to send her a photograph of my drawing at the end of each day.
The first days were difficult but I instinctively felt that some benefit might be derived from following her instructions. On day 5 I fell upon something that captured my attention and engrossed me so thoroughly that the enveloping darkness began to recede. That something was Piero della Francesca.
For the next 23 days, I studied his work and made a series of drawings that observed small, cropped sections of his paintings. I became so absorbed in this process that my dark moods and ruminations vanished during those hours. I realised that I was practicing a form of active meditation and that it was clearly beneficial.
As I continued to investigate Piero’s work, I began to feel connected to this artist of the early Renaissance. It was a connection (albeit one-sided) that traversed time and gender, one formed through the practice of painting, observation, reverence and our mutual Italian heritage. I also developed great appreciation for the care and consideration with which his paintings were made. His work seemed to offer possibilities for my consideration: How to imbue my own work with such reverence and grace? And, might I be able to offer something to others through my work?
As my mood improved, I made some proactive decisions. I looked to my past, to my mother and her dearest friend Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati, an Indian philosopher, psychologist and spiritual teacher. Guru Nitya had been part of my life from a very early age but I had drifted from his teachings as the juggle of motherhood and work took precedence.
As both my mother and Guru Nitya were deceased, I contacted his lifelong disciple, a woman who had known me as a child when we lived in Portland, Oregon where Guru was lecturing at Portland State University in the ‘70s. I knew she ran regular study groups relating to texts written by Guru Nitya and other Gurus of his lineage. I joined a three-year study of Atmopadesa Śatakam, (One Hundred Verses of Self-Instruction). This extraordinary poetic work by Narayana Guru invites the student or seeker to explore the nature of consciousness and in so doing, undergo a transformation of perception, values and modes of being.
The foundation of this study is the non-dual philosophy Advaita Vedanta, which is based on the concept that the Self is not separate but a part of Brahman or the Absolute reality. The study draws upon science, psychology, mythology and other philosophies of the east and west. Returning to these teachings and recommencing a dormant meditation practice felt like a homecoming.
I returned to work with a new sense of freedom and an uncharacteristic lack of fear. My initial impulse was to simplify processes and pare back, hopefully to reveal something pure - a distillation. Removing colour and virtually all forms of mark-making was a potent and liberating decision.
The titles in this show are Sanskrit words, many of which have no simple English translation. They often refer to complex philosophical lines of enquiry or to states of being that are best understood experientially. I do not profess to have fully understood or experienced their import, but I have been touched and inspired by their poetry and complexity.
As I am at the beginning of this study and investigating this ancient language, I have chosen words that hold a particular beauty and resonance for me. They mostly begin with the letter A symbolising a starting point and a reference to the Absolute.
Collaborations have been intrinsic to the unfolding of this exhibition. My deep gratitude goes to Amanda Webster, Grayson Cooke, Moya Costello and Matthew Englebrecht for their willingness to investigate and play with me.
I dedicate this exhibition with Absolute love, to my mother Edda Walker and to Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati.
Emma Walker, ‘Distillations’
Glasshouse Regional Gallery
8 May – 30 July 2021
Gallery Curator: Bridget Purtill
Gallery Assistant: Melissa Hogan
Artwork Photography: Michelle Eabry
This exhibition was developed as part of the Glasshouse Regional Gallery Artist in Residence Initiative and is supported by Port Macquarie-Hastings Council and the NSW Government through Create NSW.